Early concerns over G-M budget

TURNERS FALLS — Town officials have so far shown unease in the face of the Gill-Montague Regional School District’s preliminary budget for the coming year.

The Gill-Montague Regional School Committee in January approved a preliminary $17,292,956 budget, up 4.4 percent. Last year, the budget rose about 1 percent.

District officials have stressed this figure is preliminary and will be subject to change before residents are asked to approve it at the annual town meetings in May.

Last week, school and town officials and state legislators considered how to cope with growing school spending requests in tight financial times. The meeting revolved around the role of the budget compact signed by the towns and school district and loosely endorsed by state legislators and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in 2010. The compact was an agreement in principle to restrict the growth in school spending over several years. But now some at the meeting, mostly school officials, feel circumstances have changed and the compact arrangement that brought fiscal accord is not working.

The meeting was organized by the so-called technical panel, an ad-hoc group responsible for the financial scenario on which the compact is based.

Among those in attendance were members of the finance committees and selectboards of both towns, both town administrators, the bulk of the School Committee, the district’s interim superintendent and business office contractor as well as state Reps. Steve Kulik and Denise Andrews and state Sen. Stan Rosenberg.

Allen Tupper Brown of the Gill Finance Committee and the technical panel said the compact provides for a meeting of the parties involved if any of the financial scenario’s underlying assumptions appear to be changing.

“Also, the preliminary district budget looks to be out of line with the existing Table B plan, so that might be a further reason for this meeting,” Brown said.

Michael Naughton of the Montague Finance Committee and technical panel said the panel was looking for the parties to support development of a new financial scenario for the compact.

“Somebody needs to work on coming up with a new plan because the plan we have is no longer working,” Naughton said.

The original called for an additional 3 percent annually from the towns, a district budget held flat in the first year then increased by up to 2.5 percent in the next four and an additional 3 percent annually in state aid.

The 3 percent increase in state aid has not occurred.

“Based on town assumptions, there’s about a $300,000 gap between the amount of revenue the district is expecting, or the amounts towns and state are expected to provide, and the budget that the district would like to fund with that revenue,” Naughton said.

Under a scenario in which the towns fill the gap they would be in the black for the first year, Naughton said, but that could not be sustained.

Naughton said under a scenario in which the district is limited to what the towns can afford, the budget increase would be capped at 1.9 percent for the coming year.

Andrew Paquette, president of district business contractor The Management Solution, said TMS came up with budget numbers to adhere to the budget time line — established in the regional agreement — but the budget is still in its infancy without input from district staff.

Paquette also said a number of new unfunded mandates, including implementation of new educator assessment system, and the likely adoption of the multi-state Common Core curriculum standards, a new standardized test to replace the MCAS, are likely to cost the district about $900,000.

“When we have these things that are expected of us and the funding isn’t there for that, and the funding isn’t even there for Chapter 70, obviously as a district we’re even further behind the eight ball to begin with,” Paquette said.

School Committee member Michael Langknecht said the change resulting in three consecutive years of budget accord was the early inclusion of the towns in district budget discussions, rather than the compact or the technical panel. Langknecht said the recent switch to an outside contractor for the business office means the office now has the capacity for the kind of long-term analysis provided by the panel.

“The analysis that has been missing ... we feel we have been able to provide or bring in,” Langknecht said.

Revisiting the formula for determination of state aid was among the possibilities raised, with Rosenberg saying the community is welcome to examine the formula and ask for a change, but any change is unlikely unless the district can find other districts in identical situations as allies.

Recent controversy around the technical panel began in November with Interim Superintendent Mark Prince’s statement that the work of the panel was done and he did not anticipate working with them but was open to suggestions from any citizen organization.

Prince said he is not attempting to distance the school district from the towns.

“One person just sort of mentioned that the superintendent isn’t willing or hasn’t been willing to make himself available to citizens who want to add ideas or suggestions to the budget, and that’s not accurate,” Prince said last week. “I have publicly invited folks in various School Committee meetings, I’ve said it repeatedly and I’ll say it again here, I am more than willing to listen to ideas and suggestions.”

Not an official body, the gathering did not vote or reach any solid agreements.

You can reach Chris Curtis at:
or 413-772-0261, ext. 257

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